We are pretty proud of gazumping the mainstream media by a few days last week after an Art Life informant tipped us toCharles Merewether’s appointment as the director of the next Biennale of Sydney in 2006.
Merewether is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University, a cultural studies think tank under the stern control of Betty Churcher. Merewether’s big overseas gig – and every curator who wants to get anywhere in this country has to leave for a while – was as a collections curator at the Getty Centre.
The Getty Centre is a massive museum, research centre and ‘leadership institution’ in Los Angeles that is funded from the fortune of J. Paul Getty. The Centre boasts over a million visitors a year to its hill top HQ, a collection of buildings designed by renowned architects, grouped around plazas, libraries and shops and is linked to the outside world by its own private train line. Part of the cultural fortress is the Getty Villa, a Romanesque/Southern Californian mansion which should be familiar to fans of trash culture movies as a location from the robots-out-of-control classic Westworld. The Getty Centre has an eerily fascistic aura tempered by its “good work” ethos in the art world – the kind of crazy, utopian blend of megalomania and philanthropy that can only exist in Los Angeles.
The Getty Centre Museum is known for its kooky populist exhibitions and the announcement of Merewether for Sydney had our minds racing – what would he come up with? Merewether says he doesn’t have a theme for the next Sydney Biennale in 2006. He told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenny Anne Low that “theme is a tricky word… I don’t want to use theme particularly. Theme parks have their place.”
We can’t tell you how excited we were when we read those words. With warm memories flooding back of the 2000 Biennale and its greatest hits curatorium (the art world’s collective known for curators), we had wild thoughts of artists collected together on the basis that they are exciting or interesting or inspired and not brought together under some contentious theme. Just imagine – a painting Biennale! A sculpture Biennale!! A Biennale dedicated to ready mades, photography or installation!! Or say, a Biennale themed around sincerity, irony, humour, cruelty, beauty, ugliness or eroticism? It would be all so simple (and yet incredibly complex) and easily gettable. We dreamt that maybe Merewether is the man to make it all come true. Then he went and disappointed us yet again:
“The 53-year-old Melburnian art historian, curator and author, […] is keen to expand the contemporary art event across Sydney and Australia, and also help it “find its own site”.
“I think that’s a must because the Biennale is something that should be ongoing,” Mr Merewether said. “It shouldn’t be just an event. It’s an organisation and it should continue to be active in some form or other throughout the two year interim.”
Hang on…isn’t a Biennale an exhibition that is held every two years? We know when the Sydney Biennale started in 1973 it was held every three years for awhile, but that was back when people weren’t all hung up on calendars, man, and they just got it together when things felt right. But nowadays we thought it was a lot stricter than that? Low complicated things further by saying that Merewether does have a theme in mind, but didn’t say what it is:
“While he does have a theme in mind, Mr. Merewether, […] is more vocal about broadening the base of the next Biennale’s artists, venues and mediums. Along with a strong Australian presence, he envisages inviting artists from areas such the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and countries across Asia.
“He also plans to stretch the Biennale out to venues and sites in the inner-west and western Sydney and is considering conferences and exhibitions of Biennale artists in other parts of Australia.
“Perhaps a performance artist or group that is coming from the Philippines does something first in Perth and Adelaide and then Melbourne and then they’ll arrive in Sydney.”
While we admire the tokenism of nominating geographical and broad cultural regions on your curatorial hit list without explaining why, we’ll just to give the newly appointed director the benefit of the doubt – we’ll just assume that he does have a good reason and not because, as some cynics might claim, he’d been working at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles for so long he’s ignorant of events like the Asia Pacific Triennial, or the fact that there are artists from the Baltic states and Asia in the current Biennale or that the event is nearly always spread out around Sydney (up trees, down drains, in galleries, on islands, and so on ad infinitum)…
But there’s a more important question – this is the Sydney Biennale isn’t it? We thought it was supposed to be in Sydney, right? Not In Melbourne or Perth or Adelaide – they have their shows and we have ours, let’s get that right from the start – and diluting the event by spreading around the country and city loses focus. We don’t want the Biennale to end up like the Festival of Sydney do we?
Still, he has two years to tell us what the Biennale is going to be and he’s on track to get the cultural balance right before he’s poisoned by sports-induced mind-meld.
“After spending so much time overseas, Mr. Merewether […] says he is keen to retain his fresh perceptions of Sydney and Australia in order to shape the next Biennale.
“I’m hoping I can take advantage of that before I get all too comfortable back home, so to speak, and lounge around and watch the footy.”